NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Los Angeles Dodgers officials were all smiles when they announced at baseball's winter meetings that they had signed pitcher Kevin Brown to a seven-year, $105 million contract yesterday, but the record deal wasn't exactly cause for celebration throughout the industry.
In fact, when the Dodgers sent the game's top individual salary through the roof, a couple of high-ranking baseball officials hit the ceiling.
"It's a sign that the apocalypse is upon us," said San Diego Padres president Larry Lucchino, reached at his home in San Diego. "I think what has happened represents a sea change. Salaries have been escalating, but seven years at $105 million should send alarms off in living rooms all over America."
Sour grapes from one of Brown's rejected suitors? Or just a sample of the concern that is growing as fast as the game's rapidly inflating salary structure?
"It jeopardizes two things that fans hold most dear," Lucchino said. "One is the affordability of baseball to families as an entertainment alternative. It should be clear that these salaries are paid by fans in the form of increased ticket prices, concessions, parking, etc. It also affects the competitive balance of baseball. Fans have got to feel that their team has an opportunity to win."
Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone tried to address that concern during yesterday's news conference to announce that his club had won the five-team bidding war for Brown -- with a $15 million-per-year deal that shattered the $100 million barrier and illustrated the wide disparity between baseball's richest and poorest clubs.
"The Dodgers do not take payroll disparity and economic responsibility lightly," Malone said in the press release that accompanied the announcement. "We are sensitive to the financial concerns of the industry. This type of monetary commitment to a player of Kevin Brown's abilities will enable us to field a championship caliber team now, while we build for the future with our focus on our long-term commitment to scouting and player development."
But his nod to the financial difficulties that face the industry only angered Major League Baseball executive vice president Sandy Alderson, who has joined the commissioner's office to help find a way to bridge the ever-widening chasm between the small-market and large-market clubs.
"The written comments on the Dodger press release were a direct affront and insult to the commissioner of baseball," Alderson said. "To suggest that in spite of this signing, that they are concerned about the disparity and the fiscal risks associated with the game is BS."
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who is not attending the winter meetings, clearly was disturbed by the game's newest salary record, but he allowed Alderson to act as the sport's voice of reason.
"There's no appropriate comment I can make," he told reporters from his home in Milwaukee.
It was a strange scene at Nashville's massive Opryland Hotel, where Alderson attended the news conference and held court with reporters almost within earshot of the interview sessions involving Malone, Dodgers manager Davey Johnson and agent Scott Boras.
"I don't think you can have it both ways," Alderson added. "I don't think that you can sign a guy for $105 million and then pay lip service to financial responsibility and the fiscal issues that affect the game. I don't blame anyone for responding to the dynamics of the market, but don't kid yourself and insult us with that kind of rationalization."
Malone apparently thinks he can have it both ways. He insisted that the signing of Brown would buy the Dodgers time to develop the club's next generation of quality starting pitchers in the minor leagues, thereby allowing them to stabilize their payroll in the future.
Of course, the Dodgers have shown little inclination toward financial restraint in the months since Rupert Murdoch's Fox Group bought the franchise from the O'Malley franchise earlier this year.
That is what several teams were afraid of when they initially voiced opposition to the approval of Fox as the new owner of the Dodgers franchise. The Padres were one of those clubs, but eventually joined in the lopsided vote to ratify the sale.
"I did call some baseball officials today and left a message We told you so!" Lucchino said.
The Padres were one of the teams involved in the bidding for Brown, who just helped lead them to their first World Series appearance since 1984, but Lucchino and owner John Moores xTC were not willing to go beyond a five-year term. The Padres are about to break ground on a new stadium, but they do not have the revenue potential to compete on an even economic footing )) with the top revenue-producing clubs.
"The Dodgers payroll of $85 million is millions more than the gross revenues of the San Diego Padres," Lucchino said. "While we beat them to a pulp last year, you can't count on that happening when it's David and Goliath every year."
Malone has seen the revenue-disparity issue from both sides. He was the general manager of the miniscule-market Montreal Expos before becoming assistant GM of the Orioles and -- in September -- general manager of the Dodgers. But he won't apologize for enjoying the economic benefits of one of professional sports' most successful franchises.
"I think it's unfair to criticize this team for doing what is in the best interests of the Dodgers and our fans," Malone said. "We're very concerned about the economic issues," Malone said. "We strongly considered what was best for the industry, but we decided that somebody was going to break that barrier. The market was set.
"I've been on the other side. I've worked with the lowest payroll in baseball. I still have feelings about that. I talked to a small-market GM and expressed my concern. He said, 'If I was you, I'd do the same thing.'"
Pub Date: 12/13/98